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Rumors run amok amid police silence in Jelani Day investigation

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The Jelani Day portrait was returned for temporary display Monday morning, within a window at 104 Beaufort St. It's expected to be placed at ISU.

PERU — The LaSalle County coroner on Tuesday tried to push back on what he called false information circulating about Jelani Day’s death—rumors that have had plenty of room to spread in the absence of almost any information being released by authorities.

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In an interview with WGLT, coroner Rich Ploch responded to a recent opinion piece in the Chicago Sun-Times that suggested Day’s organs were mysteriously missing, and sparking a flurry of social media chatter alleging Day’s body had been mutilated.

“It’s unfortunate. Sadly, it’s misinformation,” Ploch said. “I do want to say on the record that all of Jelani Day’s organs were present at the time that we did the autopsy. Some of them were in a severely decomposed state due to the condition from the several days in the water before recovery.”

Day’s story is being followed nationally. The false missing-organs story spread so far that Day’s family issued a statement Monday on Facebook to set the record straight.

“No organs were missing. I do not want to stray off from the facts. There were contradicting facts from the first preliminary autopsy compared to the second independent autopsy, but this is not a case of organ harvesting,” the statement read.

People at a demonstration over the Jelani Day artwork
Demonstrators march in Uptown Normal on Oct. 4, 2021, in protest of the removal of a Jelani Day portrait from a display site near the mural. Emily Bollinger/WGLT

The public has encountered a lot of rumors in Day’s case because there hasn’t been much else to go on.

LaSalle County authorities have not held a single press conference related to the case since Day’s body was recovered Sept. 23 in Peru, Ill. The LaSalle County sheriff’s office—which declared itself the point-of-contact for inquiries—has not responded to at least five calls from WGLT. The LaSalle County state’s attorney has not responded to two requests for comment.

And, what little information they have released has been confusing.

The Peru Police Department posted a surveillance video on Facebook in late September, apparently showing a Black man approaching a residence and saying it was related to an ongoing investigation. But the Facebook post did not specify whether the video was related to Day’s case, fueling speculation about its relevance. (The person in the video was eventually ruled out as a suspect.)

The Bloomington Police Department did host a press conference on Sept. 23, but it’s just one piece of a “collaborative multi-jurisdictional unit” working Day’s case.

Without any verifiable information, the public’s working theories are playing out on social media and now spreading into the real world.

Djimon Lewis, an Illinois State University student, spoke at the Bloomington City Council meeting on Monday. He said authorities should be treating Day’s case like a “murder investigation.”

“I know how weird this case looks. I know there’s stuff I don’t know. There’s stuff that has to be kept close to the vest,” he said. “There’s some misinformation surrounding this case. We know that’s what’s going on. But we have to think about, wow, somebody probably got lynched just 60 miles from here in a sundown town, and we’re still masquerading like this town is safe for Black folks to live in.”

But authorities have not commented lately on whether foul play is even suspected. Day’s family and others insist he was murdered.

Day, an ISU graduate student, went missing Aug. 24. Before his body was found, authorities said he went missing under “unexplained suspicious circumstances.” At that time, Bloomington Police said “we have no specific details that would lead us to believe that foul play is suspected.” After Day’s body was found, BPD said “it is difficult to answer that question” (about foul play).

“We can all agree that it was very suspicious, just unlike him,” BPD spokesperson John Fermon said on Sept 23. “It was one of those things, was it foul play or not?”

Adding to the public frustration is that other high-profile cases appear to be moving along on a faster trajectory. Cross-country traveler Gabby Petito went missing around the same time as Day, and some felt race was a factor in how differently authorities—and the media—treated their cases. Petito’s cause of death was released Tuesday (strangulation).

Day’s cause of death has not been released.

Ploch, the coroner, said they’re still awaiting the toxicology report and the histology report (study of tissues) from analysts. He said they’ll hopefully receive those this week.

“That final cause-of-death autopsy report will be hinged upon some of these, you know, toxicology, histology results, as well as if we have enough available investigative information from the police agencies, as to why, you know, Jelani Day came to be in the water,” Ploch said. “So once we have all those pieces in play, then we should be able to release the autopsy report, and possibly prior to that. But I know that their police agencies are diligently working that case around the clock to find out why that happened.”

A body was found Sept. 4 in the Illinois River in Peru. It took 19 days for authorities to positively identify the body was Day’s. His mother told WGLT she was told “the state lab does not have the chemical that is needed to process the DNA,” potentially explaining the 19-day gap. Ploch said in an email, however, that he was “actually surprised at how quickly it was done” based on the condition of the body when it was found.

When asked if the length of time it took to identify Day’s body could properly be described as a “delay,” Beth Hundsdorfer, chief information officer for the Illinois State Police, directed WGLT to the agency’s dashboard. That data indicates the average length of time to process biological samples is 81 days.

Some people may have the wrong impression because of perceptions drawn from fictional television shows, said Ralph Weisheit, a distinguished professor of criminal justice at ISU.

“There’s this impression of, ‘Oh, if we get DNA, we can turn it over to the authorities and they’ll have a result in a matter of hours,’” he said.

Ideally, yes, it would be a day or two, or a week at most, Weisheit said.

“The reality is that all this discussion about defunding the police focuses on cops who are on the street. What doesn’t get talked about is the years of shortfalls financially in terms of support for things like forensic labs,” he said. “They’re overworked, understaffed, and part of it is they don’t have that visible face that a police officer on the street does.”

Weisheit also said the LaSalle County Sheriff’s Department has been guilty of bad PR.

“Even press releases and media appearances in which they say, ‘We don’t have anything new to report’ is better than saying nothing,” he said.

Ploch said more information could be coming from LaSalle County authorities on Wednesday.

“I would caution the public from jumping to any kind of conclusions,” he said. “Let the science dictate the findings, and let the police and the investigative agencies, the professionals basically, continue to investigate the case with the help of the public for any leads that may be important to make sure that those are passed on to the sheriff’s department here in Lasalle County that’s running the lead for the investigation taking any (of) that information, or the Bloomington Police.”

Also speaking at Monday’s Bloomington City Council meeting was Olivia Butts, an ISU professor and community leader who was most recently a leader with Black Lives Matter BloNo.

Butts asked city council members to hold BPD responsible for what she called its “mishandling” of Day’s case. Day’s mother “to this day has no idea what happened to her son,” Butts said.

“I don’t believe you’ve exhausted your resources and power to help the Day family,” she said.

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Illinois Newsroom gets stories from public radio stations from across the state, including WBEZ-Chicago, WCBU-Peoria, WGLT-Normal, WVIK-Rock Island, WIUM-Macomb, WNIJ-DeKalb, WSIU-Carbondale, WUIS-Springfield, and St. Louis Public Radio.

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